Saturday, August 31, 2002

New computer Now that Jaguar is out, I'm ready to leave my beloved Pismo and try OS X. I just ordered a new iBook, 12.1' screen, lots of memory, and those lovely speakers that look like the ghosts in Pacman (silver).

Friday, August 30, 2002

BT loses hypertext claim revisited A while ago I wrote how I was ambivelent about BT losing its hyperlink patent case. On the one hand it was a ridiculous patent, but on the other hand we have a ridiculous patent law and how better to point out its sillyness than by following it. But my school buddy SS (now at Yale Law School) responds:
Must disagree with they way you put your point on the BT hyperlink patent issue, if not necessarily with the deeper point itself. Whether a bad law stays "on the books" is totally irrelevant to what the law is. (American) Lawyers spend much more time worrying about what intervening judicial decisions say than what the base statute says; a judge can and does change the law just as much by a narrow construction of a statute than by striking down the statute and getting the (wholly owned by Disney/AOL) legislature to redraft it. Much better, usually, to keep Congress out of it and let the judges fix the problem with doctrine. It makes the law harder to find--it's not just in one tidy place on the web--but that's the common law for you.
Point taken. Congress, wholly owned, clueless, and utterly irresponsible, does routinely draft terrible laws, but I'm not thrilled by leaving it up to the Judiciary either. Judges may not be owned, but they often don't know much about technology and can make bad decisions too. Moreover, leaving "actual law" down to (future) case law means property rights remain murky, which is economically wasteful and retards innovation. In the matter of software patents, these just need to be banned as a class, which isn't something I think case law can do.

Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Verizon plus the EFF Here's a remarkably candid interview of Verizon's general counsel (head lawyer), Sarah Deutsch. What's most interesting is the way it reveals how the content industries concerns about the Internet began in 1995, and how the DMCA resulted from behind the scenes negotiation to limit ISP's liability while addressing the content cartel's fears.

The RIAA's and MPAA's current assaults against the Internet, fair use, free speech, and the public domain are unilateral, and since telcos have had trouble getting their traditional carve-outs, they're siding with the EFF on these regulatory issues for now.

Given the legal murk around telco regulation (TA96, Tauzen-Dingell), the big carriers aren't sure whether they need to compete on infrastructure or services. As content is complimentary to distribution, ISPs like P2P filesharing as it drives demand for faster connections, and so is not interested in stopping Napster (although it would like a cut).

The DMCA did not do the job, as P2P networks are not covered and prosecuting end-users is expensive. While the content cartel may have predicted Napster (kind of), they did not predict Morpheus, thus this new raft of legislation. The difference is that this time it's all very public. Blogs like this one, and countless others, are sending hundreds of citizen eyeballs to obscure candidates from obscure states, uncovering the campaign money trail, and following legislation the way folks usually follow sports teams. This has to have some effect on how things shake out.

What's also interesting is how new this is to the (non corporate) participants. The content industries in particular were born from backroom deals and have operated under Congressional aegis since their inception, but not geeks. Lessig, for example, is clearly new to this lobbying / grassroots activism thing, and that goes for many of us.

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Must governments use open source? Peru, and other places, are considering legislation that would require government offices to use Open Source software over proprietary (Windows) products. Tim O'Reilly has come out against that, saying that it infringes on people's choice to use the best tool for the job. I agree with Tim. Freedom must be alienable so users can pick software that suits their needs best.

I would add that government purchasing rules are arcane and loaded with weird and perverse incentives. Requiring the use of open source software would merely be one more bizarre restriction on the back of many others. This doesn't make it right, but sometimes second best solutions are most we can hope for. Arnold Kling (who has kind things to say about this site) adds these comments.

Sunday, August 25, 2002

BT loses hypertext patent claim A judge has ruled that British Telecom does not have patents on the hyperlink, and by extension, the internet. While I'm pleased to see wisdom prevail, I would actually have prefered the judge to uphold the patent. By sheilding us from the most egregious aspects of written (black letter) law, judicial restraints prevents bad laws from being stricken from the books. Saying a patent outlawed the Internet would have helped change bad patent law.

Saturday, August 24, 2002

A commons for spectrum? Larry Staton pointed me to this legal article on replacing spectrum auctions with a "spectrum commons." It begins with a rather nice allegory, comparing the FCC's regulation of spectrum with the government regulating how people speak at a party. Instead of this intrusive auction business, the paper argues, why not just ask everyone to lower their volume, or have local law enforcement get people to quieten down if things get too rowdy? Ultimately, the paper argues, its better to offer spectrum under a "Common Property Regime."

I still don't find the arguments convincing. There are two central issues here: 1) is spectrum rival/scarce and 2) how easy is it for parties to coordinate access.

The scarcity angle is tricky -- "bandwidth" is a mix of transmission, processing, and local storage, and electromagnetic spectrum adds the fourth dimension of attenuation. The various new efficient spectrum technologies ("spread spectrum," "ultra-wideband") essentially shift load from the transmission component of bandwidth to the processing component. This is as it should be given how available spectrum is constant but processing cost continues to fall as Moore's Law grinds on. But this doesn't say spectrum is suddenly "non-rival," it just means that $5 worth of terminal circuitry can now do the work of $1,000,000 worth of 1950s technology, so many applications no longer need as much spectrum as they ought to. And optimizing between transmission, processing, and local storage is best done through a market.

The FCC's spectrum auctions are a step in the right direction--if a party bought spectrum to do job X, and now needs less spectrum to do that same job, they now have incentive to sell that excess to someone who can better use. By contrast, if it was allocated to them, they would simply not bother to petition the FCC for a reallocation.

Sadly, the FCC remains in the business of allocation and restricting the aftermarket. It turns out that spectrum auction winners cannot resell their spectrum to others (except under particular circumstances) and the FCC limits what use a particular slice of spectrum can be put to, limiting innovating spectrum re purposing.

I would argue that the solution to this is more complete spectrum ownership, not less. But the paper argues
If the value of the spectrum cannot be measured ex ante, then there seems to be no basis for saying that the final winners in a particular auction are necessarily those who valued the spectrum most highly. One suspects that the definition of "value" being used here is circular--the highest-value-user is defined as whoever happens to win a particular auction, and then the auction is praised for its power of discovering the highest-value-user...[Auctions] functions as a barrier to entry for those mid-level companies that might have the most innovative ideas about spectrum usage [but can't afford the spectrum].
These assertions are false. Firstly, no one "happens to win" an auction the same way one "happens to win" at Bingo--auctions winners are those who stump up the most cash, and if anything tend to most wildly overestimate the value of the lot. If cold hard cash isn't a good way to uncover what someone thinks something is worth, I don't know what is. Secondly, mid-level (and even small!) companies can borrow against predicted future earnings to buy spectrum. US capital markets have done a wonderful job of democratizing cash and arguing that small companies can't make big investments stands in ignorance of venture capital, junk bonds, warrants, and the other wealth of financial infrastructure that does just that.

Having spectrum restricted to particular uses and forbidding people to resell is particularly harmful to consumers and innovation. For this (like so many other things) we have to thank the content industry, particularly early radio and television that, through appalling cronyism with Congress, took large swatches of public airwaves for their own private use.

But back to the paper. I really struggled to understand what a "Common Property Regime" was, and the best I could figure out was that it was some kind of group sharing agreement between incumbents which collectively blocked entry and apportioned economic rents between themselves, all bound by a variety of measures that enforced collusion and punished cheating. In my book this is called a "cartel" and I don't associate them with innovation. The paper sees this as a feature, not a bug, to wit:
In the lobster fisheries of Maine, for example, people are restricted from fishing at all unless they are members of a harbor gang, while each harbor gang has its own territory. In the Swiss alpine common pastures, entry is usually restricted by community residency or by family lineage.
Gangs keeping out new guys and access by privilege of territory or ancestry reminds me of the Mafia.

Earlier I raised attenuation, and I'm going to close on that. Through the attenuation profile of the 802.11x spectrum, it has the virtues of being 1) narrow enough to be local while 2) broad enough to be useful. Oh, and it's 3) connected to ridiculously powerful processors. These characteristics, along with its dramatic installed base and grassroots support, means its an ideal exception to the rule where a "Common Property Regime" may work. I've been reading about how Starbucks, who wants to sell neighborhood WiFi is trying to shut down an existing (free) community network, and this strikes me as the sort of disputes clear ownership would beg. Let's see how the polis sort it out amongst themselves.

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Thin White Duke vs. DJ Ninja There's a fairly lame interview with David Bowie and Moby, who I presume are touring together. The most interesting part is how convinced they are that the recording industry is going down and how the internet will essentially eliminate the idea of authorship in music. In particular, Bowie mentions "mash ups" as an area where traditionally copyrighted music cannot succeed but audiences are clamoring for it anyway. I mentioned mash ups once before and thought they might have this effect. I'm a big fan of DJs (very po mo) and while technology can't make everyone a musician, it can make everyone a DJ.

Urk :( My faithful Mac died. I finally got the USB interlink cable working, transfered a whole bunch of data to it, updated my iPod, and played back video clips on my digital camera on it. I guess that was too much excitement, as now it does't turn on. I'll have to send it to the local Mac center to see if they can bring it back to life.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

How well does it fail? Before I left Boston, I spoke with some other Extreme Blue interns about why anyone would ever want their car to talk to their phone. They spoke about all this wonderful, seamless interconnection that would make my life easier, but I remained skeptical. These days, I've been struggling to connect my Mac to my dad's PC using a USB interconnection cable with no luck. I think frustration is the more usual experience people end up having with technology products, so frankly I don't expect car+phone to work, or to be worth the inevitable aggravation.

On a related but disimilar note, here's a great Bruce Schneier piece on how the value of electronic security systems depends on their ability to fail gracefully. He refers such systems as "ductile", as opposed to "brittle". I thought it was very insightful.

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Going to Dubai Well, my IBM internship has ended, and I'm heading back to Dubai. So no blogging for a little while, but I hope to write up some overdue longer pieces while I'm out there.

Saturday, August 10, 2002

Back from ArmonkArrived back from IBM HQ late last night. Had no time to blog there, so I'll write some of it up now.

As I mentioned earlier, I had the good fortune of talking with Stu Feldman, head of computer science research for IBM. I asked him what the thought about J2EE vs .NET in the emerging internet operating system. He said he didn't think too many people would standardize on .NET because it would tie them to a single vendor, but saw them both improving interoperability and sharing the space.

I asked Irving Wladawsky-Berger, who's responsible for IBM's Internet and network computing strategy and helped bring GNU/Linux into the company, the same question. He said that when the mainframe era ended, mainframes didn't go away, they just became an uninteresting and stagnant part of the industry. Similarly, he doesn't see Windows on the desktop going away, it'll just become a stagnant and uninteresting part of the industry as (GNU/Linux powered) devices, sites, and services surround it. This seems pretty reasonable -- if I think of the desktop over the past 7 years there have been no significant applications written for it. I don't consider the web browser an application, it's just a piece of infrastructure that renders the real internet applications, like Amazon, Google, and Yahoo!.

I kind of think the recording industry will go this way also. I don't ever expect them to stop banning Napster, but I do expect whatever victory they have in blocking their material being distributed online just leading to them being surrounded by open music that can be edited, traded, and mashed-up.

I also had dinner with Alfred Spector, Vice President of Services and Software. He was mostly interested with privacy and security, and felt that while things like Microsoft's Palladium were necessary they would never forbid users from executing code on their client machines.

Lastly, I met Sam Palmisano CEO of IBM. He was a really nice guy, and argued that since businesses underutilize most of their computing resources, they will begin outsourcing those to companies like IBM. This is kind of like the asp's of old, except instead of farming out top-level functions, they'll be farming out low-level processing. This is what IBM's grid computing initiative is about, and I think they're marketing it under the term "e-utility", which they aren't thrilled with and might change.

I'll close on some thoughts about IBM's purchase of PwC. Firstly, I would argue that IBM has no strategy. I'm defining "strategy" as "ownership of a scarce recourse or position that lets you charge a supra-competitive price and appropriate rent", and IBM's too big to specialize. IBM has major channel conflict issues with its software -- they have ISVs, VARs, SIs, IBM Global Services, IBM sales, and Lotus/Tivoli/WebSphere/DB2 sales, all of whom kind of compete with each other. But they don't care too much about it this, and just try to locally optimize as best they can. IBM bought PwC for high-level client relationships that will let them sell more involved services and systems to large businesses. Overall, I think IBM sees more growth in its services arm, but didn't want to go out and hire 30,000 people. So it bought them cheap.

Thursday, August 08, 2002

In Armonk The IBM Learning Center is just next to IBM HQ, and was built during the 70s when Big Blue was at its monopolistic height. So, it's pretty gorgeous, and has all this old IBM gadgetry lying around, including mechanical tabulators and punches. I had dinner with Stu Feldman last night, who is the head of IBM research and was the 8th or 9th guy to write UNIX. He also wrote this little program called make, which some have found quite handy (I'm surprised that someone actually wrote make, I'd foolishly assumed it had just appeared). We talked about how Web Services were going to change business, which is peculiar because no one yet seems to understand what they are, or how they can be useful. I've learned some interesting things about IBM's relationship to Coroporate America wihch I'll write up soon.

Tuesday, August 06, 2002

Heading North I haven't been posting much recently because I've been busy getting our project ready for the big Extreme Blue Expo. We head up to IBM HQ at Armonk tomorrow to pitch to Lou, Sam, and various other execs. If I get a chance to post from the belly of Big Blue I will, and if not, I'll write up the trip afterwards. I just bought a Digital Elph S200, so hopefully I'll have some pictures too.

Monday, August 05, 2002

I don't care about spam I really don't. Spam's easy to spot, and both Claris Emailer and Yahoo! mail come with excellent ways to delete wide swaths of it at once. Moreover, I fear that any "solutions" will be worse than the problem, and will inevitably encroach on some of the freedom that's made computers so innovative. Cory Doctorow spoke with Bruce Sterling about this, and comes out in a similar position. Incidently, have I ever mentioned how deeply unimpressed I continue to be by Sterling? As a writer he was merely boring, but as a commentator he is boring and dumb, an unforgivable combination.

Thursday, August 01, 2002

Retailers cut costs Will Cox sent me a pointer on how retailers and labels are cutting CD prices, while the RIAA argues against it. This price competition is bad for the industry, but good for consumers, and shows how the recording companies are beginning to break rank and undercut each other after years of successful collusion. More interestingly, labels are using discounts to push new acts. If the CARP web radio ruling had set its rate as a maximum, labels would similarly undercut each other by promoting new music online. Update It looks like one Indie label is waiving the fee, but forcing labels between choose between charging the full fee or charging zero reduces competitive pressure.